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Hazard Mitigation Plan Prepares Portsmouth for Disaster

'Instead of just responding to these events, we look at improving infrastructure for drainage and culverts. 'We're not going to stop a storm from coming, but we can lessen its impacts.'

(TNS) - Fire Chief Steve Achilles acknowledged many city residents might not know Portsmouth's (N.H.) hazard mitigation plan exists.

"It's the kind of thing that they might never see, but people can take comfort knowing that we're thinking about these things," Achilles said this week.

City officials recently released the 2017 draft update of the plan, which was put together by several city officials, including Achilles, Deputy City Manager Nancy Colbert Puff and other fire, planning and Public Works staff.

"It's a document that the city has had for as long as I've been with the Fire Department and it gets updated every five years," Achilles said. "It's looking at how to reduce and mitigate hazards ahead of time to minimize the impact of natural disasters."

One key part of the plan is to identify what natural hazards Portsmouth could face, he said.

The draft plan states "Portsmouth is prone to several types of natural hazards."

"These hazards include: flooding, hurricanes or other high-wind events, severe winter weather, wildfires and conflagration, earthquakes, coastal storms, extreme temperatures, drought and sea-level rise and increased precipitation events arising from climate change," the draft plan states. "Other natural hazards can and do affect the city of Portsmouth, but these were the hazards prioritized by the committee for mitigation planning. These hazards were considered to occur with regularity and/or to have high damage potential, and are discussed below."

An example of how the city could mitigate a disaster before it happens is improving the fire hydrant system in the city's congested South End, knowing one of the disasters the city could face is "wind-blown fires," Achilles said.

"Improving the hydrant system in that case becomes a mitigation strategy," he said. "Hazard mitigation looks at how to reduce the effects of a disaster before the emergency happens."

Portsmouth has dealt with storm surges and flooding during heavy rain events, Achilles noted.

"Instead of just responding to these events, we look at improving infrastructure for drainage and culverts," he said. "We're not going to stop a storm from coming, but we can lessen its impacts."

Portsmouth's Hazard Mitigation Plan is different "from the city's emergency operations center," Achilles said, which responds to the event after it happens.

Because Portsmouth often gets hit with major snowstorms, the committee can look to make sure "we have the right equipment" to deal with it, Achilles said.

This year's update includes a series of recommendations for capital expenditures the committee believes could help to mitigate future natural disasters, he said.

One such suggested action is "acquiring backup power for municipal and school buildings and wells," according to the updated plan.

This would "enable these buildings to serve as emergency shelters," the plan states.

The city received money from the New Hampshire Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management through what is called a "Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant" to prepare the updated plan.

Once the plan is approved by the City Council it is then submitted to Homeland Security and that "creates opportunities for the city to get grants and assistance to start implementing or paying for hazard mitigation," Achilles said.

"The plan doesn't just sit on a shelf," he said.

The city can then look for federal and state grants to help pay for elements in the hazard mitigation plan, Achilles said. "That will be the check box on the grant application that they're looking for to move it forward," he said of the city's completion of the updated plan.

"The nice part is as we're doing this plan, we're actively engaged, thinking of these strategies in the hope that in the case of a natural disaster, the effects on the city of Portsmouth, the community and the business owners is lessened because we've been proactive," he said.


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